Joan Higginbotham speaking at Future Human 2020. Image: © Connor McKenna/

Former astronaut Joan Higginbotham on seeing the Earth from space

5 Nov 2020

Former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham describes the journey that brought her onboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116.

It’s not every day we get to hear what went through an astronaut’s mind as they viewed the Earth from space. At Future Human 2020, the audience was treated to that insight from electrical engineer and former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham.

In a conversation with science communicator Dr Niamh Shaw, Higginbotham shared some of the milestones from her journey. It all began with a “twist of fate” when she was still at college and got a call from a NASA manager.

“I’m in my dorm room and he asks me if I want to move to Florida to launch space shuttles,” she recalled. “And I’m like, who is this? Because I had not applied to NASA and, honestly, Niamh, I was not a big NASA or space fan or enthusiast. I know that’s hard to believe, but I wasn’t.

“I got to go to Florida and I saw a space shuttle and I saw the launch pad and it just looked like something out of Star Wars, and I’m thinking, hey, I will give this five years and see where it goes.

“And 20 years later, I finally left [for space]. It was the best decision of my life, just not one that I necessarily planned for.”

‘It was so amazing feeling the thunder in your chest as the shuttle was taking off’

It wasn’t long before Higginbotham knew she had made the right choice. She described witnessing her first launch after she started working at NASA.

“Oh my gosh, I could see the launch pads from my office, and I stood up there with all the other people and I watched that countdown and I nearly just bawled my eyes out,” she said. “It was so amazing feeling the thunder in your chest as the shuttle was taking off.”

Perseverance and mentors

Initially, Higginbotham hadn’t actually considered becoming an astronaut herself. When her boss encouraged her to apply to be part of the astronaut programme, there were 6,000 other candidates. Of those, 120 were interviewed and just 15 people made the shortlist. It was a rigorous process, with week-long interviews and psychological and medical evaluations.

“And about six months later, after all this time of waiting on pins and needles, I get the call,” she said. “Unfortunately, my call wasn’t good. Of the 15 people they selected of 6,000, I was not one of them. And so my dreams were a little bit dashed, my feelings were a little bit hurt.

“But I decided, you know what, I got so close. I have to see what I can do. So I went back and got another graduate degree. I went through the whole process again and, lo and behold, I was accepted the next time.”

She was also inspired by Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel to space. Although she hadn’t been considering a career in space travel when she first met Jemison, Higginbotham was “enamoured” by her.

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“I mean, first of all, you don’t meet a lot of astronauts, you know,” she said. “I benefited from the fact that I worked at the Space Centre, so I got to meet some. But then, how many African Americans? And then, how many African American women?

“So, I was enamoured and I’m sure I just tripped all over my feet speaking with her. She is truly an inspiration and she’s wicked smart.

“I didn’t look at her as an inspiration from that viewpoint of me wanting to be [an astronaut]. I looked at her as an inspiration for her being a woman who broke through the ceiling and being the first, which is incredibly different for anybody who is a ‘first’ of anything.”

Seeing the Earth from space

Higginbotham went on to become the third black woman to go into space. She was assigned to a mission – Space Shuttle Discovery STS-116 – seven years after she was first selected to be an astronaut.

The mission had been due to launch in 2003, but was delayed after the Columbia disaster. So it wasn’t until 2006 that Higginbotham finally got her chance.

She described many great aspects of this mission – like how the Space Shuttle went around the Earth once every 90 minutes so she would see 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours – but two events impacted her the most. The first happened when her commander called her up to the flight deck and said, “sit down, strap in”.

“I was like, what did I do?” she said. “He said to look out the window. I’d had my head buried in the shuttle, getting all my stuff ready for when we were going to dock with the International Space Station so I could be ready to go. And he’s like, just sit down and enjoy the view.

“It was about to be daylight and the sun just burst up over the horizon and I could actually see the atmosphere.” She hadn’t expected it to be such a thin line.

“I was like, this is the only thing that is keeping everything on Earth from extinction. And I thought, right then and there, we really need to be very protective of Mother Earth because it is very fragile. And this is the only place that we have to live right now. So we really need to take care of it.”

A week later, she said, she watched the world go by through one of the Space Station’s windows. She thought about the diversity of her crew; the seven nationalities they represented, the five languages they spoke, the four countries they came from and the three space agencies they worked at.

“I saw the 10 of us – with all our different colours and backgrounds and experiences – getting along to accomplish this one goal. My thought was, why can’t we all get along? Because if we can do it in this tin can, why can’t we do it down on Earth where there is so much more space?”

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021